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Extracts from 'Who Are The People?' edited by Peter Shirlow and Mark McGovern (1997)

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Text: Peter Shirlow and Mark McGovern ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following extracts have been contributed by the editors, Peter Shirlow and Mark McGovern, with the permission of the publisher, Pluto Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

This chapter is taken from the book:

Who Are The People?
Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland
Edited by Peter Shirlow and Mark McGovern (1997)
ISBN 1 7453 1208 X (Paperback) 215pp £13.99

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From the back cover:


We are the people is a popular loyalist slogan in Northern Ireland — a clear and unequivocal statement of loyalty, identity and devotion to and from Ireland’s Protestants. The contributors to this collection, many of whom are members of Northern Ireland’s Protestant community, examine the meaning behind this legend of unity and unwavering devotion.

Who are ‘the People’? reflects more than a simplified analysis which accepts the criticism of, or devotion to, the Protestant community. It critiques the many issues and concerns which face a heterogeneous community whose lifestyle, politics and cultural affiliation are both reproduced and modified. In their broad analysis, the authors explore ‘new’ Unionism, gender issues, Protestant fundamentalism, working-class identity, and socio-cultural change. Who are ‘the People’? broadens the debate on Northern Ireland and enables an effective challenge to the sectarian asperity that condemns this society to cultural and political opposition.

Peter Shirlow teaches Geography at Queen’s University, Belfast and has written widely on the political economy of Ireland and is the author of Development Ireland (Pluto Press 1995).

Mark McGovern is Head of Irish Studies at Edge Hill University College, Ormskirk. He has written widely on Republican and Unionist politics and history.

Cover photograph: Peter Shirlow
Cover design: Terry Foley

Who Are 'The People'?
Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland

Edited by Peter Shirlow and Mark McGovern



Notes on Contributors


Introduction: Who Are ‘the People’?
Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland

Peter Shirlow and Mark Mc Govern


The Character of Ulster Unionism
Arthur Aughey


Ulster: A Representation of Place yet to be Imagined
Brian Graham


Suffering for Righteousness’ Sake?
Fundamentalist Protestantism and Ulster Politics
Duncan Morrow


Discourse and Contemporary Loyalist Identity
Alan Finlayson


‘Up To Their Knees’? Football, Sectarianism, Masculinity and Protestant Working-Class Identity
Alan Bairner


The Culture of Contentment: The Political Beliefs and Practice of the Unionist Middle Classes Colin Coulter


Gender and Protestantism in Northern Ireland
Rosemary Sales


‘Flying the One-Winged Bird’:
Ulster Unionism and the Peace Process
James McAuley



Counter-Insurgency, Deindustrialisation and the Political Economy of Ulster Loyalism
Mark Mc Govern and Peter Shirlow







Anglo-Irish Agreement


Alliance Party of Northern Ireland


Committee on the Administration of Justice


Confederation of British Industry


Central Community Relations Unit


Campaign for Equal Citizenship


Combined Loyalist Military Command


Community Relations Council


Cultural Traditions Group


Department of Economic Development


Democratic left


Democratic Unionist Party


Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland


European Union


Gross Domestic Product


Gross National Product


House of Commons


International Fund for Ireland


Irish National Liberation Army


Irish People’s Liberation Organisation


Irish Republican Army


Member of the European Parliament


Member of Parliament


Mode of social regulation


Northern Ireland Abortion Law Reform Association


New Ireland Forum


Northern Ireland Office


Protestant Action Force


Progressive Unionist Party


Protestant Working Class


Red Hand Commandos


Royal Ulster Constabulary


Social Democratic and Labour Party


Ulster Defence Association


Ulster Democratic Party


Ulster Freedom Force


Ulster Unionist Council


Ulster Unionist Party


Ulster Volunteer Force


Workers’ Party

Publication Contents

Notes on Contributors

Arthur Aughey is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster. He is the author of the book Under Siege: Ulster Unionism and the Anglo-Irish Agreement (Blackstaff: 1989). He has recently co-edited Northern Ireland Politics (Longman: 1996). Arthur is also a member of the Community Relations Council and the Cadogan Group.

Alan Bairner is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster. He is the co-author of the book Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland (Leicester University Press: 1993). He has written widely on the theme of sport and sectarian division. His other academic interests include Swedish politics and socialist thought.

Colin Coulter is a Lecturer in Sociology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He has written several analyses of Unionism and the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland in Fortnight and Irish Political Studies. He recently contributed to the book Unionism in Modern Ireland (Gill and Macmillan: 1996).

Alan Finlayson is a Lecturer in Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He writes on social and cultural theory, he has written several articles on theories of nationalism and has recently contributed to An Introduction to Contemporary Social and Political Thought (Longman: forthcoming).

Brian Graham is a Professor of Human Geography in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Ulster. He is a co-editor of the book An Historical Geography of Ireland (Academic Press: 1993). In relation to the themes of revisionism and cultural identity in Ireland he has also contributed articles to the journals Ecumene, Transactions and the International Journal of Heritage Studies. He has recently edited In Search of Ireland (Routledge: 1997). Brian has also written widely on transport geography.

James McAuley is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Huddersfield. He is the author of The Politics of Identity: A Loyalist Community In Belfast (Avebury: 1994). He has written extensively on the theme of Loyalism in the journals New Society, the Irish Journal of Sociology and Études Irlandaises. He has also contributed to the books Culture and Politics in Northern Ireland (Open University Press: 1991) and Ireland’s Histories (Routledge: 1991).

Mark McGovern teaches Irish Studies at Edge Hill University College, Ormskirk. His PhD (University of Liverpool) focused on the siege myth within Protestant identity, in his home town of Derry. He has written widely on Republican and Unionist ideologies and recently contributed to the book The Irish Peace Process (Avebury Press: forthcoming).

Duncan Morrow is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster. He was previously employed at the Centre for the Study of Conflict. He is the author of The Churches and Inter-community Relationships (Centre for the Study of Conflict: 1991) and co-editor of Northern Ireland Politics (Longman: 1996). He is actively involved in community relations issues and is a member of the Community Relations Council and the Corrymeela community.

Rosemary Sales is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Middlesex University. She has recently authored the book Women Divided: Gender Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland (Routledge: forthcoming). She has also written about Fortress Europe, refugees and also on social policy in Europe.

Peter Shirlow is a Lecturer in the School of Geosciences, Queen’s University Belfast. He is also a founder member of the Socio-Spatial Research Unit at Queen’s University which undertakes research into deprivation and labour market inactivity. He is the editor of Development Ireland: Contemporary Issues (Pluto Press: 1995). He has written several articles on Loyalism and Republicanism for the journals Antipode, Political Geography and L Éspace Geographique.

Publication Contents


A common piece of graffiti in Northern Ireland is the slogan ‘We are the People: Prods Rule OK’. This legend was something to which many of us who grew up in a Protestant community accepted as a truism. On one particular wall in Lambeg, in the late 1970s, somebody wrote at the end of this slogan ‘Ask Charlie Nash’. This additional slogan was written after the boxer Charlie Nash, a Catholic from Derry, had been beaten by Jim Watt, a Protestant from Glasgow, in a world contender fight. The boxers themselves had a significant admiration for each other and the question of religious affiliation had not been an issue to either of them. Both were united by their devotion to their sport.

To many of us who were Protestants the fight itself threw up a crucial issue over who to support. After all, Charlie Nash lived in our country, there was a lot of media interest in him, we knew more about him than Jim Watt and, most of all, he was Irish. As was the case with much of our identity this fight brought to the fore many of the contradictions that confront us in terms of who and what we are, and to whom we should owe allegiance.

In many ways it is this confusion of identity which is the main inspiration for this book. Most of the contributors to this collection come from Protestant backgrounds but not all of us are pro-Union thinkers. Some would support the reunification of Ireland, some would wish Northern Ireland to be fully integrated into the UK. Others may even admit to being ambiguous about future constitutional arrangements. However, one constant and shared concern is that present constitutional arrangements and representations of political identity do little to resolve the nature of socio-cultural antagonism. For too long the communities or traditions of Northern Ireland have been represented as bi-polar opposites. In this book we begin the task of challenging the ‘myth of the homogenous communities’, by establishing the diversity and variance which exists among Protestants.

This is a crucial task which is based upon the assumption that Irish society will not progress or resolve its antagonisms without a deconstruction of cultural animosity and division. Unfortunately the main argument has been that each community must respect the other and that each must support the notion of ‘parity of esteem’. But how do we achieve this when the majority of politicians and the main political ideologies are based upon the perpetuation of antagonism itself? Moreover, how do we do this in a highly segregated society in which a divided people rarely come into more normal forms of social contact? The simple answer is to start a project in which each community or tradition begins its own introspection. A process in which individuals declare that they find the cultural representations, whether Protestant or Catholic, Nationalist or Unionist, which are forced upon us all, both alien and unacceptable.

Within our society we have many dissenting voices which disagree with community norms, voices which wish to raise us all above the sectarian quagmire in which we have all been encased. But this process is not about simply turning Catholics into Unionists or Protestants into Nationalists; it is about finding a new cultural framework in which we share diverse sociocultural experiences. We need to respond to our circumstances, learning to respect ourselves through challenging the instability that our cultural claims make, cultural claims we have clamoured to support and reproduce as the body bags were filled and the dole queues lengthened.

We need to look at the divisions within our own traditions, challenge the sectarian representations of who we are and resolve to produce a more secular understanding of what we want to be. In this book we challenge what for many of us is our own community’s representation. This should not be read as a negative account of the Protestant community. Instead it should be seen as a representation of our concerns about our own community. We have and will continue to invest in our own community through challenging what we feel to be erroneous and unwise. We hope that one day this task will be undertaken by those who grew up in Republican and Nationalist communities alike.

Publication Contents

Introduction: Who are ‘the People’?
Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland

Peter Shirlow and Mark McGovern

Whether it is written on the walls of Belfast, spoken by the Apprentice Boys of Derry, or sung at Windsor Park, the phrase ‘We are the People’ is a clear and unequivocal statement of loyalty and devotion to and from the Protestant people of Ulster. Throughout and before the conflict this aphorism has been an emotive rallying call as well as a familiar part of everyday language in Northern Ireland. It is a phrase which has stood the test of time. As the traditional wall murals of King Billy and the Battle of the Boyne have slowly faded away to be replaced by more contemporary images of Loyalist paramilitaries, as the character of Unionist hegemony slowly dissolves and fragments, this phrase has been constantly used and reproduced as a reminder of the need for cultural cohesiveness and solidarity in the face of what is perceived as Irish irredentism and British state-inspired betrayal (Dunn and Morgan, 1994).

As such, this adage is a grand signifier of loyalty, devotion and identity. If anything it is a constant reminder of a self-identified community who sense that they are besieged and threatened by socio-political and cultural dissipation. In such circumstances and throughout Irish history, the inherent political instability which has plagued this island has always meant that strategies for socio-cultural survival have included fabricating notions of cultural solidarity, foeism and unified strength (McNamee and Lovett, 1992; O’Brien, 1994).

It has been one of the central myths used when diagnosing the conflict, as is the case in the Framework Documents, that the supposed two traditions (the pro-British and pro-Irish communities) contain identifiable and unitary characteristics which remain authentic. In reality the opposite may well be the case. In many ways those who have been and are embroiled in the pursuit of conflict and socio-cultural antagonism are the very people who are trying to create or maintain an illusionary form of socio-cultural homogeneity. They revel in excessively biased historical interpretations and strive to promote blinkered political objectives which are driven by devotional nationalisms. In many ways this devotion to a pure and uncontaminated notion of cultural and national homogeneity denies the relevance of a more pluralistic interpretation of identity which could effectively challenge sectarian discord.

The abstraction that such a solid form of socio-cultural conformity exists among Protestants, as well as Catholics, is not only myopic but in many ways fictitious. The authentic and more appreciated reality of 25 years of conflict, street violence, boycotting and heightened sectarian animosity is that there has been no significant movement towards much needed mutual understanding or socio-political agreement. Furthermore, and it has been the case throughout the conflict, the communities are divided not only between but within themselves. For many Protestants there has been a desire to distance themselves from events and actions, such as the Drumcree stand-off and the besiegement of Harryville Catholic church. Many people believe these actions are inappropriate and out-moded forms of political representation. Similarly, many Catholics find little or no pleasure in the boycotting of Protestant businesses or the re-mobilisation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Regrettably, such distancing tactics, which in many instances are attained through a process of apoliticisation, are more commonplace than a forceful condemnation of community representatives and politicians who thrive upon sectarian asperity.

The continual failure of individuals to point the finger at their own community, through questioning how and why it reacts in such conflictual ways, is undoubtedly part of the overall problem. It is evident that in many instances, due to the threat of violence and rejection by one’s own community, it has been easier to accept ontological security through conformity with a given identity than it has been to advocate dissent. However, it may also be the case that socio-political fragmentation within each community is so profound that many individuals or sub-communities do not feel that violence or atavism emanates from their actions and/or political beliefs. In both instances the general problem still remains that for many the task of encouraging the regeneration of cultural identity and conviction through the promotion of an anti-sectarian discourse is simply anathema.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in most instances it is assumed that the resolution of conflict will come in some form of negotiated settlement between the pro-British and pro-Irish sections of the population. Such a position is in itself illegitimate as it relegates the importance of intra-community diversity, on the one hand, and hides the reality of identifiable inter-community solidarity, on the other (Shirlow and McGovern, 1996). Without any clear understanding of intra-communal plurality we are left with an inappropriate and generalisable model in which the bulk of the population is placed within one or other of the two (supposed) traditions. Lamentably, socio-cultural heterogeneity, within each of these conjectural traditions, is being lost or misrepresented, as monolithic depictions of identity silence and/or dilute the importance of nonconformist voices which dissent from wider community norms (McGovern and Shirlow, 1997).

Of course, for many the use of the two traditions model is wholly unproblematic as well as politically calculated. For the British and Irish states it permits the interpretation that the conflict is more about religion and history than it is about issues such as class, socio-economic competition and the impact of shifts in the character of Irish society. Furthermore, for certain community representatives, the mobilisation of a binary ideological framework of division sanctions a form of censorship over inter-community dialogue as each side purposely promotes differences over similarities. Dividing the population into two blocks also allows sectarianism to thrive upon the demonisation of the ‘other’. In all societies divided by conflict it is always the case that we judge the opponent more than we judge ourselves.

As such the aim of this book is to promote an understanding of the Protestant community and its diversity. This does not mean that there are no shared values or beliefs within the Protestant community. Evidently, most Protestants consider themselves to be British as is clearly indicated through the ballot box. But what is less clear are the divisions which ‘dare not speak their name’. Without any understanding of the Plurality that exists within each community it will be impossible to develop a support base capable of challenging ideas, beliefs and actions which retard social progress, on the one hand, and block the utility of a new socio-cultural direction for us all, on the other.

Who are ‘the People’?

To describe and account for any people as ‘a people’ usually leads to the employment of stereotyping, whether negative or positive, from within. For many Protestants a concept of oneness and the existence of ‘the People’ is wholly unproblematic, a situation which is not unique to Protestants or the Irish context (O’Connor, 1994). However, as noted by Sparke, "‘The People" is one of the trickiest and most dangerous of all political phrases. That being so, no occurrence of it ought ever to be taken for granted or allowed to pass without examination’ (1994, p. 32).

Not only is the use of the legend ‘We are "the People"’ problematic when it is used by Protestants themselves, but it is also equally harmful when it is mobilised to portray the Protestant community as a unified cabal who are both politically intransigent and culturally myopic. Condemnation of this supposedly unified Protestant community comes in many forms. Protestants have been depicted as unified agents of oppression or as dupes of an imperial past. Moreover, their articulation of a British identity is challenged as erroneous and unwise. As was noted in October 1994 in the Chicago Tribune, ‘Protestants are less humorous than their Catholic counterparts. They are sombre and hard-working. They feel British and deny their Irish past and future.’

Paradoxically, the Chicago Tribune’s simplistic depiction and overtly hostile discourse aids the reproduction of the ‘myth of the whole Protestant community’ (Brown, 1985). Such monolithic depictions, whether they are generated internally or externally, merely indicate the stamina of binary sectarian and ideological divisions. Furthermore, for many Protestants the sense that they are denigrated both at home and abroad only furthers the sense of besiegement and promotes a further drive towards illusionary homogeneity. As such, and due to the effects of conflict and denouncement, communal homogeneity becomes even more pervasive and persuasive for those who can see no further than the permanence of sectarian demarcations. As a consequence the reality of class, gender and other axes of social division are underplayed in the context of a highly politicised ethnic separation. Furthermore, the call for communal solidarity, in the face of the perceived threat of the ‘other’, has in turn limited the space for an exploration of intra-communal heterogeneity. This in turn means that allegiance to ‘the People’ prevents the abstruse question being asked, ‘Who are "the People"?’

If this question is not asked then it is important to substantiate a claim that ‘the People’ possess a series of concepts which constitute a discourse of political legitimacy. Whether such an ideological project is built upon civic or ethnic foundations, and whether or not it is conceived as the basis for a right to self-determination, it is a process which lies at the heart of modern political theory and of the organisation of power and authority in modern societies (McGarry and O’Leary, 1995). Such a process is taking place when speaking of Ulster Protestants as of any other community, although their status as a distinctive ‘People’ is undoubtedly more inherent and disputed than most. Furthermore, the conflict itself is closely fixed to reproducing and sustaining the idea of ‘the People’ in the face of its detractors.

In reality, communal devotion emerges as a mode of domination, in which shared class, gender and cultural experiences, which are inter-community in character, are concealed. Moreover, contriving or accepting monoliths is, for certain sections of both communities, an apparently satisfactory pursuit even if it sows the seeds of future discord.

A Protestant or Unionist History?

The imagined heritage of historical continuity of any collective people emerges through a historiography of selection, adoption and adaptation. Many Protestants perceive their history as being centred upon a distinctive past in which specific action, norms and beliefs remain immutable. A particular element in the historiography of Protestantism has been the dilution and removal of any significant Irish dimension. What are perceived as unacceptably dissenting voices and shifts in the character of Protestant politics and identity have been purposely obscured (Gellner, 1983; Tonkin, 1992), and a history of collective allegiance to the crown, constitution and the ‘Protestant People’ remains. This process of historiographical incorporation and elimination has played a key role in establishing the hegemonic hold of Ulster Unionism.

The litany of a populist Protestant history draws upon ‘rarefied tableaux’ of key historical epochs, figures and events. Whilst the professionalisation of historians’ writing has done much to curb the interpretative excesses of earlier generations, the extent to which such ‘inorganic’ intellectuals influence a long-established and commonly held perception of the past is somewhat limited (Stewart, 1967 and 1977). As such the ‘rarefied tableaux’ still have wide appeal and popular valence.

The cycle of the past, as told in popular Unionist histories, has been seen to contain distinct elements, each of which has contributed to a centripetal construction and reproduction of not only a Protestant but a Protestant—Unionist unity (Jackson, 1989 and 1996). For example, the actuality of conquest and colonisation has traditionally been conceived as a battle between ‘British civility’ and ‘Irish barbarity’. Historically, the civility—barbarity thesis not only legitimised Protestant domicility in Ireland, but continues to suggest the need and right to defend such a position vis-á-vis the Catholic/Nationalist community. Furthermore, the relationship between the British state and the Protestant people has been sanctified in commemorations of sacrifices made in the past by the latter for the former. A sacrificial ethos, which has underpinned the construction of the Protestant community (and which in many instances has excluded the contribution made by Catholics), has been evoked not only in histories of Derry and the Boyne, but even more powerfully in the memory of the Somme.

This celebration of sacrifice has been evident not only in the writing of history but also (and with far greater influence) in the popular practices associated with the street culture of Loyalism and the marching season. In addition, the imagery of the ‘Honest Ulsterman’ (distinctive in tongue, race, religion and custom) has become a central motif utilised to justify the foundation and continued existence of the Northern Irish state. The particularity of the ‘Honest Ulsterman’ not only sets the community apart from Catholic Ireland but also, somewhat paradoxically, from the rest of the British polity.

These overlapping and interlinking circles of historicised identity forge not only a ‘flag of collective allegiance’ (the ‘right to be’) but also dictate a ‘charter for action’ (‘to defend the right to be’). History tells a significant section of the community who they are and what they must do to ensure their survival as ‘the People’. This important ideological use of history, in a situation where there is a real or perceived threat to the continuance of the Protestant community will invariably mean that elements or ideas within the collective past, which challenge or deviate from the narrow confines of accepted orthodoxies, are liable to be lost. As such the complex mosaic of socio-political and cultural heterogeneity within the ‘Protestant community’ has been reduced to an ever-repeating cycle of threat, siege and deliverance. The ‘siege mentality’ so evident among sections of the Ulster Protestant community owes much to this conception of the past.

Recent histories of the Protestant past have begun to challenge such orthodoxies through revealing something of the lost (and non-Unionist) history of the Protestant community (Jackson, 1996; English and Walker, 1996). Evidence to support diversity and conflict within the Protestant community has a long and at times distinctive lineage. During the period of settlement, in the seventeenth century, antagonisms within the Protestant community were signified by conflicts over land ownership. Moreover, disputes over political rights and intra-Protestant denominational differences were also prominent. Such socio-cultural differences continued into the eighteenth century and were combined with a growing antiquarian interest in Irish culture and folklore, with explicit political implications. For some, this fed into an embryonic identity of Irish patriotism. By the end of the eighteenth century the nature of a specifically ‘Protestant’ identity could be historicised as the very essence of radicalism, the rejection of not only ‘Popish’ but also British tyranny. To be a ‘virtuous Protestant’ could mean to be a good Irish patriot.

This constant caveat of heterogeneity was reproduced through the nineteenth century but was successfully countered by three powerful ideological forces which fomented the character of modern Protestant identity: Orangeism, all-Protestant Union and the imperial patriotism of Unionism itself. Furthermore, the space for dissent narrowed post-partition as the politics of the new state were conditioned by perceived and real threats both internally and externally from Irish Republicanism.

Social tensions did, however, produce antagonisms, evident in labourist and at times communist politics, but such hostilities did not effectively challenge the dominance of Stormont-based Unionism which was able to discharge a form of pan-class solidarity (Purdie, 1991). As with labourist politics the continued fragmentation of Unionist hegemony through the emergence of liberal, Loyalist and fundamentalist discourses has been tied to the overarching supremacy of a pro-union congruity and agenda. The end result has been that particular readings of the past have led to a definition of Protestants as a ‘pro-Union People’. The abandonment of dissident traditions from popular mythologies has been paralleled by a celebration of Britishness in which the symbols associated with the constitutional link have come to take on a significance far beyond the realm of institutional governmental arrangements. It may be that, as a result, we can talk of this community as the ‘pro-Union People’.

A Pro-Union People?

Even though ‘loyalty’ to the concept of the Union is not always reciprocated by the British state and the wider British population, this does not detract from the salience and attractiveness of pro-Union belief. As such, pro-Unionism has emerged as a creed invented and re-invented through the incorporation of shared social norms and actions which are constructed as distinctly British. The so-called ‘British way of life’ is constituted as rational, clear and intuitively natural.

Unionism as a political doctrine is centred on the principle that the United Kingdom should be preserved as an integral unit. For Ulster Unionists it is the principle that Northern Ireland must remain in the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Clearly, Unionism adopts a nationalist form; like Irish Nationalism it has distinct ethnic, language and civic dimensions. In relation to the latter the Union is visualised as a union of invariant citizenship of the United Kingdom, irrespective of cultural, religious or racial origins. In terms of its ethnic construction, Unionism is explicitly linked to a sense of achievement, in which the allegory of Protestant forefathers (excluding foremothers) importing civilisation to Ireland continues to play a pivotal role (Clayton, 1995).

The fundamental rationale of Unionism is the desire to resist any coercive incorporation into a reunited Ireland. Justification for such action and belief emanates in most instances from a predominantly Protestant community. However, pro-Unionism is not a static or unified doctrine in itself, but instead it contains a wide body of strategies, goals and representations. Pro-Unionism can represent a stand against what is perceived as Irish irredentism; an endorsement of economic and other benefits; sectarian atavism, consocialisation or a seemingly and increasingly positive thesis that the Union supports pluralism, multi-culturalism and equality of citizenship. In each case the ‘People’ emerge as those who are the vanguard of a more respectable civilised and responsible body of citizenry on the island of Ireland.

Certainly a new wave of Unionist rationalism, as articulated by the Cadogan Group, Robert McCartney, the Ulster Review and others, grounds itself upon a liberal-democratic thesis of reconceptualising the state-society relationship. Yet, even within its own terms, this project faces two fundamental problems: First, the need to decouple the association of pro-Unionism and the ‘Protestant’ people and second, to convince a sufficient section of the Catholic community that the preservation of the Union is desirable. The dilemma is one of squaring a supposed drive for pluralism with the potential alienation of large sections of the Protestant community for whom the Union enshrines far more than merely the nature of state institutions and the rights of the citizenry.

The seemingly insurmountable task facing ‘new’ Unionism is precisely how it might reconceive and reconstitute the ‘pro-Union people’ so that it might come to include the ‘whole body of the enfranchised citizenry’. The task facing ‘revised Irish nationalism’ is the mirror image of this problem. It too is engaged in an attempt to renegotiate its ethnic and civic dimensions in order to recreate an inclusive vision of the ‘Pro-unification People’. In overall terms the crisis facing Ireland, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist, is to reconceptualise who ‘the People’ are in order to achieve a new social and political consensus.

Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism

The ethnic and civic elements of Unionist politics, the impact of history and culture and the diversity of experience in terms of gender and class are the main areas of concern within this book. It is designed to illuminate the character and disposition of the Protestant community as well as indicate the very nature of Conflict and social tension within Northern Ireland. In promoting a pluralistic collection the book also treats the concept of ‘the People’ with the care it so evidently requires and deserves.

For too long, commentators on the conflict in Ireland have carelessly thrown diverse groups into general categories which are wholly inappropriate and insensitive. The end result has been to convince many on the ground that there actually is an identifiable and unified foe which must be resisted. If a more cautious commentary were produced which indicated that there is significant intra-communal heterogeneity, then it is possible that inter-community similarities would also be exposed. The significance of such alliances would be to undermine the demagogues and political manipulators who mobilise contrived homogeneity and in so doing block alternative syntheses and strategies.

The book is organised into three main areas of concern: the politics of contemporary Unionism, the relationship between history, culture and Protestant ethnicity, and the impact of divisions of class and gender on Unionism and Loyalism today.

In different ways the first two chapters explore this critical moment of contemporary Unionist political discourse, and thus also make a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on the future direction which Unionism might take. In Chapter 1 Arthur Aughey, one of the leading exponents of ‘new Unionism’, argues that it is a rational and modern political ideology centred upon conceptions of citizenship and the state-society relationship and not (as it is often viewed by its critics) a form of nationalism. In essence, Aughey denies that an ethnic conception of ‘the People’ is either true or useful when attempting to understand the nature of Unionism. Echoing Jennifer Todd’s (1987) definition of ‘two traditions’ within Ulster Unionism, Aughey argues that within the Unionist fold there have indeed been these two (potentially contradictory) conceptions of ‘the People’ of Northern Ireland. One is an essentially ethnic construction, which tends to exclude the Catholic population, the other is ‘constitutional’ and is rooted less in notions of identity and ethnicity, but rather upon the relationship between civic society and the institutional organisation of political power. Through an analysis of recent Ulster Unionist Party documents, and their reaction to the ‘Talks Process’ of 1990-92, the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Documents published in February 1995, Aughey argues that the future lies in promoting an ‘expressive constitutionalism’ capable of calling upon the allegiance of all the citizens of Northern Ireland (Ulster Unionist Party, 1986). Calling for a ‘new and intelligent form’ of Unionist politics, Aughey sees in the rejection of an ‘ethnic construction’ the basis for political rights and responsibilities which negate Northern Ireland’s socio-sectarian divisions. Coherent and thorough in its argument, Aughey’s vision of a ‘Unionist constitutionalism’ is ultimately rooted in a wider tradition of conservative political philosophy.

For Brian Graham, on the other hand, it is in the cultural, rather than the constitutional sphere, that Unionism must revisit its ideological message. As a geographer Graham emphasises the importance of people’s understanding and sense of attachment to spatial entities and territories. For Graham, the historical failure of the Northern Ireland state was its inability to construct a cultural affinity between its spatial limits and ‘the People’ contained within. Clearly, any future constitutional arrangement faces the same dilemma. As a consequence, if Unionists are to be successful in the project of promoting their political philosophy as being pluralistic and inclusive in character they must, as Graham suggests, formulate a ‘positive cultural iconography’. This might, he argues, allow for a ‘sense of place’ to develop which can provide the social cement for a new consensus amongst all of ‘the People’ who live there.

In line with this form of argument and in the second part of the collection the focus falls more upon the part culture plays in defining different aspects of identity within the contemporary Protestant community. In Chapter 3 Alan Finlayson examines different ways in which the past has been recalled by Ulster Loyalists, and the manner in which these various tellings of the past construct identities in the present. For Finlayson ‘identity’ and ‘community’ are ultimately contestable concepts, not unlike the notion of ‘the People’ with which they are so closely bound.

According to Finlayson, ‘essentialist’ identities should be deconstructed by dissecting the conception of ‘mythic communities’. Far from being essentialist in nature he argues that identities are constituted and reconstituted through time to give particular definition to those who ‘belong’ and thereby also to define the interests which are supposed to be self-evident. To assess the discursive character of Ulster Loyalism, Finlayson examines a number of instances in which ‘Ulsterness’, ‘Britishness’, ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Democracy’ are invoked to ‘hail’ the hearer to the ethnic fold. Rather than reworking understandings of the past, this means that ‘the People’, however they are imagined, must first of all go beyond essentialist conceptions of identity if any new future for Northern Ireland is to be realised.

It is impossible to understand Unionism and Loyalism without understanding the role of ‘fundamentalist Protestantism’ in Ulster Protestant political culture. That is the starting point for Duncan Morrow’s examination of the importance of a series of symbols, myths and rhetorical motifs within the discourse of contemporary Unionist ideology which are derived from theological, and, in particular, ‘fundamentalist Protestant’ perspectives. Morrow is not simply arguing, à la Steve Bruce (1986), that fundamentalist preachers, churches or theological tenets in and of themselves are influential, but rather that they define a moral universe within which the parameters of an Ulster Protestant identity takes shape and is expressed. He argues that much of contemporary Protestant ideology is constructed via a series of structural oppositions: the ‘sinned against and the sinning’, the ‘righteous and the damned’, the ‘good and the evil’.

Not only are such binary oppositions established rhetorically, but they are the essence of the ritual re-enactment of identity contained within the culture of the marching season. Indeed, they are the basis upon which an identity among sections of the Ulster Protestant community is established, ensuring that the political projects and agenda for which they are invoked are invested with a meaning beyond the realms of the transitionary and the ephemeral, but rather stand as moral absolutes in a universalised struggle of the ‘elect’ and the ‘dark forces’ ranged against them. Within the context of ongoing conflict such an ideological configuration has great sway. In the absence of that conflict its power may wane. In a sense Morrow is suggesting that the ‘sacred past’ enshrined in a fundamentalist world view permeates the thinking of people far beyond those who would consider themselves to be ‘evangelicals’. This telling of a ‘sacred past’ helps to ensure that the ‘elect’ (conceived as the Protestant community) becomes synonymous with ‘the People’.

It is in the realm of culture that any community comes to an understanding of itself and there are a myriad of cultural forms and arenas within which this process can take place. Alan Bairner examines the importance of football, and an affinity with certain football teams (the Northern Ireland side in particular) as a focus of identity for the Protestant working-class males. Sport plays an important role in the construction of identities in the modern world, and in Northern Ireland that means not only gender and class-specific identities, but also a fusion of sectarianism and the ‘imagined community’ of the Ulster Protestant.

Given the impact of profound socio-economic change, football in certain instances provides a means for the cultural enactment of empowerment in the absence of real power for sections of the Protestant working classes. The consequence is that football can, at times, provide an arena for a deeply masculine, defensive, violent and anti-Catholic definition of Protestant working-class identity. For some, with Stormont gone and the shipyards largely silent, there is only Windsor Park or the Oval left as visible places of belonging.

In the final section of this book the impact of gender and class divisions within the Protestant community are examined. In Chapter 5 Rosemary Sales provides a wide-ranging survey of the socio-political position of Protestant women. Ethnic division, she suggests, is deeply rooted in the fabric of Northern Irish society and as a result it has certain gender-specific consequences. According to Sales, the ‘closed systems’ of Unionist, Loyalist and Protestant ideologies aid the construction and legitimation of particularly virulent patriarchal relationships within the Protestant community. Similarly, the conflict in Northern Ireland directly and indirectly affected the lives of Protestant women, as ‘armed patriarchy’ has disempowered women in both the home and in public arenas. In terms of employment and political participation, the struggle for gender equality has been severely hampered by the dominance of ethnic antagonisms and constitutional issues. In a whole range of ways, therefore, ‘monolithic’ constructions of communities have resulted in a social conservatism which has insured that the cause of women’s rights has been marginalised. For Sales the ‘peace process’ has represented a real opportunity for issues, neglected by 25 years of war, to come to the fore. Her argument would also confirm that the confrontations of the summer of 1996 provide further evidence on how difficult it is to establish a meaningful peace when the role of women continues to be relegated to the sidelines by a masculine-centred culture. She may well ask the question: Are ‘the People’ all male?

Colin Coulter focuses on the politics of the Unionist middle class, arguing that this ‘main stream' of Unionism is often overlooked in academic analyses due to the ‘exoticism’ of Loyalism and its ideological perspectives. Coulter traces the development of a middle-class Unionist tradition given the impact of the major political and structural changes since the early 1970s. In particular, he identifies the complex and contradictory impact of long-term Direct Rule from Westminster, with its commensurate loss of localised political power and cultural assimilation with Britain, alongside the potential avenue of cultural (as well as economic) rapprochement with the Republic of Ireland. Characterising the politics of the Unionist middle classes in terms of ‘inertia, ambivalence and indifference’, he suggests that these factors have contributed directly to the conflict being prolonged.

The final two contributions examine the relationship between Ulster Loyalism and class. Jim McAuley is concerned with the changing nature of Loyalist politics in the wake of the cease-fires and the development of the ‘peace process’ through 1994 and 1995. By analysing the changing discourse of the fringe parties linked to Loyalist paramilitaries during this period, McAuley argues that their reaction evidences an embryonic break into new forms of politics within the Protestant working class. The hegemonic hold of Unionism over the working class had tended to preclude aspects of Protestant working-class culture which might have been antithetical to the interests of the Unionist party. At the same time the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland similarly tended to exacerbate those elements within Protestant working-class culture which accentuated communal and sectarian division. In the absence of conflict, and in the context of shifting social and economic conditions, a more class-based politics then becomes possible. It is in this light that Jim McAuley examines the continual emergence of the Progress Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP). Divisions in Northern Ireland are such that the development of a cross-community working-class political movement is, in the short term, difficult to envisage. Similarly, the precarious character of the ‘peace process’ means that any political and ideological shifts will inevitably be partial and tentative. However, McAuley suggests that the absence of social and sectarian strife might, in the longer term, allow common ground to be found around class-based issues between political parties ostensibly organised and supported within particular communities.

The last chapter combines an analysis of the ideological nature of Loyalism with a study of the changing social and economic character of Northern Irish society. Echoing McAuley, Mark McGovern and Peter Shirlow regard the Loyalism espoused by Protestant paramilitaries as a distinctive ideological force within the broader parameters of Unionist political culture. They also suggest that this ideological tradition reflects the class-specific experiences of Protestant workers who consequently also perceive and comprehend the impact of shifts in both the local and the international economy through a pre-existing mental framework. That ideological tradition similarly sets ‘limits of possibility’ for political articulation. World-views in Northern Ireland are, in a range of ways, profoundly affected by the central binary opposition of the ‘collective self and the ‘collective other’. Since the inception of the Northern Irish state that divide has also conditioned the regulatory practices of the state, which in turn underwrote Unionist party hegemony. However, the ‘post-industrialism’ of recent years (and the specific impact it has had upon the Protestant working class) has substantially undermined those hegemonic practices, resulting in the political and ideological fragmentation of Unionism. The emergence of working-class Loyalism must be seen in that context. The dilemma for the future, however, is whether or not the absence of violence is indicative of a fundamental move away from sectarian division.

Publication Contents

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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